Paris II

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Our Lady of Good Deliverance
(Notre Dame de la Bonne Delivrance)

In the chapel of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Thomas of Villeneuve (open to the public), 52 Blvd. d'Argenson, Neuilly-sur-Seine, outside of Paris, 14th century, replacing an 11th century version of The Black Virgin of Paris, 150 cm, painted limestone. 
photo: Fortier

She used to stand in the church Saint-Etienne-des-Grès in the Latin Quarter, but that church was destroyed during the Revolution and all its content sold. Madame de Carignan, a pious rich lady bought the statue and venerated her in her private home until she was arrested during the Reign of Terror (a period of 11 months following the Revolution, which cost 20-40,000 people their lives.) In jail she used to pray to Our Lady of Good Deliverance with others who had been arrested for their faith, in particular the Sisters of St. Thomas. When all of them survived and were freed in 1806, Madame gave the Black Virgin to the Sisters. 

Under the patronage of this Virgin the Royal Confraternity of the Charity of Our Lady of Good Deliverance had been founded in 1533 and comprised thousands of aristocratic and common members. It was meant to be "a saintly society" dedicated to the honor of God and "his very dignified Mother, the glorious Virgin Mary … to keep a singular devotion alive in all real Christian men and women." This association was founded by a priest named Jean Olivier, who was "greatly pious, devoted to Our Lady with strong affection, in the service of the Queen of Angels".(*1) The group organized processions and ministered to prisoners, even paying their debts if they were imprisoned for not being able to pay them. 

Our Lady of Good Deliverance was invoked as a helper in all kinds of calamities and suffering, whether of a spiritual or material nature. She was also called upon as the Victorious One in the fight against the Huguenots and other "heretics." 

The great saints of Paris, most notably Vincent de Paul and Francis de Sales prayed before her. Young Francis spent some years in Paris as he was trying to find his way in life. His poor soul went into a downward spiral of despair as he became more and more convinced that he was doomed to eternal hell fire. One day he went before Our Lady of Good Deliverance to pour out his heart. Soon he was moved to pick up a prayer tablet that was hanging from the railing of her chapel. He read the prayer, "…rose from his knees, and at that very moment felt entirely healed. His troubles, so it seemed to him, had fallen about his feet like a leper's scales."(*2) Immediately he made a vow of celibacy before God and his Mother. The prayer he had sent to Heaven was the Memorare: 
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of Virgins, my Mother. To you I come; before you I stand sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate! Despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me. Amen. 

Not long after this event another priest with great love for Our Mother who ministered to the poor and to prisoners in Paris, spread the fame of this prayer. To this day it is recited all over the world at the conclusion of the Rosary. 
____________________________ 

Footnotes:
*1: www.missel.free.fr/Sanctoral/07/18.php
*2: Account of his very close friend St. Jane de Chantal, quoted in: Marie Chantal Sbordone, VHM Mary's Role in the Faith Crisis of St. Francis de Sales, on www.desales.edu/~salesian/resources/articles/English/sfscrisis.bvm.htm 

In

Thuret

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In the village church. Thuret is between Vichy and Clermont-Ferrand, Puy-de-Dome department, Auvergne region, 17th century replacement of the 13th century original. 

Photo: Ella Rozett
Notice the lotus blossoms at her feet, an Indian symbol of enlightenment.

Our Lady of Thuret
The Virgin-Warrior of the Crusades

In the 13th century the seventh Crusade (1248-1254) was preached in the sanctuary of the famous Black Madonna of Le-Puy-en-Velay, in the presence of King Louis IX and the feudal lord of Thuret. The latter must have gone home with a copy of this Madonna in order to instill zeal for the "Holy War" in his subjects. All we know is that since that time a Black Virgin who looks just like the one that presently resides behind the main altar of Le-Puy, is honored in Thuret under the titles Virgin of the Crusades or Virgin-Warrior.

Several visitors have attested to the magical-mystical power of her church. Strange esoteric, masonic and pre-Christian symbols abound in this church. Many of them are explained in a photocopied booklet for sale in the church. It is René Chabrillat's "Thuret: its church mediates Christian initiation". 

The author explains what the monks who built this church meant to express: They were well aware of all the ancient wisdom traditions from Atlantis, Egypt, India, and Druidic France. All that is good in those teachings and which leads to God, they have incorporated into their Christian mysteries and represented in their church.

What is to be left outside the Christian Church is the God Dionysius with his orgiastic debaucheries. He is a lonely figure remembered outside, over the North entrance. As his followers pick grapes, phallic branches press into their groins. 
Over the South entrance, near Christ, there is the Fool somersaulting and holding a concave mirror. He warns the initiates not to enter the sacred space from the wrong direction. Perhaps this means, look at yourself in the mirror of your conscience and enter the Way only with the right determination and motivation.

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Inside the church one finds the holy water stoup which shows a horse biting its tail. As when a snake is shown biting its tail, so this horse too symbolizes eternity. But this horse also denotes the Gallic mare-goddess Epona. She was a nurturing mother-goddess of fertility, depicted as a white mare, pure, heroic, self-sacrificing. She became the patron of horses and all who work with them, e.g. the Roman cavalry. From being a guide to all who traveled by horse, she was promoted to leading the deceased on their last great journey through the underworld. Chabrillat explains that her presence on the holy water stoup reminds us that this water is meant to make us pure like Epona so that we can approach God. (p.25)

A Merovingian sarcophagus reminds us of the legend that this dynasty descends from a supposed union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Though an older legend wants to trace the 'blue blood' of this dynasty to another set of human and divine parents. It states that the 5th century legendary Merovech, founder of the Merovingians, was the son of King Clodio's wife and a fabulous water creature related to the god Neptune. Before getting too exited about the "bloodline" of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, it might behoove us to remember that almost all royalty (whether European, Asian, or African) claims mythical or heavenly descent. Hence the concept of 'blue blood'. As in the case of the Merovingians, the idea is always used to justify the domination of others. Descending from Jesus seemed like the perfect reason to need to rule the world, which is precisely what the Merovingians had in mind.


*1: Ean Begg is very intrigued by this legend. He describes this dynasty as spiritual, but also acknowledges its political ambitions. Pp. 13-14 and 145-6. Jacque Huynen on the other hand characterizes the Merovingians as illiterate barbarians with a simplistic view of Christianity, which they imposed on others by the sword. They ruled France after the Germanic tribes had plunged Europe into the Dark Ages and put an end to the relative harmony that had been reached between Roman Christianity and Celtic religion. "L'Enigme des Vierges Noires", pp. 56-57 and 61.

In

Thuir

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Department Pyrénée-Orientales, region Languedoc-Roussillon,16 km SW of Perpignan, close to the Black Madonnas of Cuxa and Finestret, 50 cm, late 12th century, one of five statues cast in lead from a mold.

The Virgin of the Victory
(La Vierge de la Victoire)

The little old church lady who led me to the church of Our Lady of Victory knew nothing of a Black Madonna at her church. The little statue is hardly visible in her place of honor high above the altar, far from where ordinary people are allowed to go. It didn’t seem to me that she enjoys what Ean Begg calls “a living cult”, although according to him her feast day is celebrated on October 7th when Christian armies won an important victory over Muslim occupiers in 1571. If one believed some of the legends that have been told of her, she would meet many characteristics of a Black Madonna. However, they are contradictory.

Presumably there was an older Black Madonna in her place that was lost somehow. Some say it was brought from the Near East by a crusader by name of Sir Montmorin St Héreme. 
Another legend connects it to Charlemagne, who lived three centuries before the first crusade. It explains the title of the Lady as follows: One day, Charlemagne was in the valley of Thuir, ready to fight the Muslim invaders of Southern Europe. His troops however, worn down by heat and thirst, were on the point of surrender to the enemy. So the emperor placed the Madonna in the midst of his army, invoked her help, and thrust his sword into the sand of a dry river bed. Immediately a well of abundant water sprang forth and gave the Christian soldiers new strength. After receiving miraculous help from Heaven, they had no trouble defeating the enemy.

Having won the victory with the help of the Queen of Heaven, the emperor decided to found a monastery on the site of the miracle, which became known as the Monastery of the Camp.
Later the Muslims again invaded those parts of Europe and weren’t driven out so easily. Since they were prone to destroying “idols”, the statue was hidden from them. Once their reign had ended, a shepherd found the Madonna in a dense forest when he had ventured there in search of a lost animal. A chapel was built in her honor and around it the town of Thuir began to grow up. For several centuries she enjoyed great fame. The first mention of Marian devotion in Thuir is from the 13th century and the first record of this Black Madonna is from 1567. Every year a priest was elected to ceremoniously change her robes.

Ean Begg mentions that many healing miracles were attributed to this Lady’s intervention and that she was carried the ca. 25 km to the sea and dipped in the waters at Canet a couple of times in order to end a drought. (more on those kinds of Black Madonna rituals at les-saintes-maries-de-la-mer.htm

The Virgin of Victory was also invoked to help in difficult childbirths. For that purpose pieces of her robe were touched to women in labor. They are kept in the church to this day. (for more on “birthing belts” of Black Madonna go to Toulouse)

The statue survived the Revolution because a certain Mrs. Foussat hid her. 


Sources of information: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, pp. 226-7 and Lieux Sacrées

In

Saint Guiraud

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In her chapel in the center of the village, about 40 km and 40 min West of Montpellier and 20 min North of Pézenas (another Black Madonna site), Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon region. Any villager will tell you who has the key to let you in, 10th century, 70cm, formerly painted wood.

Photos: Ella Rozett

Our Lady the Black One
(Notre Dame la Noire)
Our Lady of Consolation

Here you see what happens when you don't renovate wooden statues once in a while. This Black Madonna is so worm eaten that you can barely make out the face and of baby Jesus only a little stump is left. If she wasn't dressed like a queen, you'd take her for a piece of fire wood. And yet this very ancient Madonna emanates a powerful energy and has been reputed as a miracle worker for about a thousand years.

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The earliest written record of a church in the village dates from 1101. The little old church lady who guards the key to the chapel told me in 2009 that those records already mention a statue being taken on a procession. We assume it was this same Dark Mother. Tradition says that she was brought to France from the Holy Land by a pious crusader around 950 A.D. Scholars think that she may be a 14th century replacement of the original.*

By the 15th century her chapel was one of three main pilgrimage sites in the county and the oldest one of them. Our Lady the Black One was famous for her miracles " and the affluence of her visiters ".
A 16th century chronic of the bishops of Lodève recounts that after the statue had been hidden during a time of wars, the bishop ordered it to be reinstalled in its chapel.

On May 14th 1855, Pope Pius IX declared Our Lady's sanctuary a "priviledged altar ". At that point she was moved from her original place above the entrance to a place of honor above the altar. Some time later she was relegated to the back of the chapel and placed on "a vulgar pedestal". Her present niche to the left of the altar was built in 1896, supposedly to honor and protect her.

Her feast day procession is celebrated on September 8th and the old folks still have miracle stories to tell about their Black Madonna.

If you are in the area, don't miss one of France's most beautiful villages, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, 15 minutes North-East and the fully preserved Knights Templar town La Couvertoirade 30 minutes to the North.


* A French, Catholic site called "Under the Sign of Saint Michael" (http://s.st.michel.free.fr) published an article on 2/25/08 entitled "Visite de lieux saints à Saint Guiraud et à Saint Saturnin de Lucian " All quotes in this article are taken from there.

In

Saint-Gervazy

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Saint-Gervazy lies 6 km SW of Saint-Germain-Lembron, Puy-de-Dôme department, Auvergne region, 2nd half of 12th century, 76cm, painted wood.
Photo: Francis Debaisieux

Our Lady of Saint-Gervazy

 


No miracles or other "special effects" are reported about this Virgin. During the Middle Ages she was obtained by the Saint-Gervazy family and brought to their little castle by the same name. Later she was moved into the charming little village church that had been erected in the 10th or 11th century.

This Madonna is revered for her beauty and classic Romanesque style. Like many other Black Madonnas, she was stolen out of her church. But this one was found again 17 years later, in the year 2000. By that time she had changed owners 5 times, so that the people of Saint-Gervazy were forced to buy her back.(*1)

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About ½ mile outside the village you'll find this ancient stone structure, a dolmen, under an oak tree.(*2) This may not be a coincidence. Several Black Madonnas are associated with pre-Christian sacred stones. (e.g. Le Puy, Mauriac, and Saint Nectaire) They inherited their sacred sites from druidic times. How did the druids (Celtic priests) use dolmens? We don't really know. Most people think they were collective Neolithic burial chambers, built in Europe between the 5th and the 3rd millennium B.C., before there were druids. One dolmen often sheltered the remains of generations of people, like our family graves.

Some scholars conjecture that dolmens were altars used for sacrifices and other rituals. The word is a Gallic expression from Brittany meaning stone table, which supports the latter use.
It is conceivable that the druids used these ancient burial chambers as altars, especially where they hadn't served as tombs in hundreds of years and where they may mark special earth energy fields. There is archeological evidence for both uses.(*3)

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It is just one of those "coincidences" that after spending some time at the dolmen of Saint-Gervazy and wondering about its use, we stopped at a post office in a nearby village. While waiting in line I noticed a display of little 8 page guides on such varied themes as the Israelites, the Gaul's, the solar system, mushrooms, stress, aroma therapy, mathematics, etc. I picked up "les Gaulois" and found this depiction of a dolmen. It shows Gaul's during their most holy ritual: the harvest of mistletoe from a majestic oak tree. Standing on a dolmen, a druid dressed in white robes uses a golden sickle to cut the mistletoe, considered the sex organ of this most sacred of trees. The juice pressed from its berries was seen as divine sperm, which rejuvenated and healed many ailments.(*4) So that's why we get to kiss whomever we meet under mistletoe during advent - we must express the sex drive of that ancient God!


*1: See website of the Association Vierge Noire de Saint Gervazy, www.avnsg.free.fr/home.htm
*2: Leaving the church on your right, head out of the village, bear left at Y intersection, turn right at the T intersection, then left at the sign that says 'dolmen'.
*3: see article on 'dolmen' in fr.wikipedia.org
*4: Les Gaulois, Petit Guide, Aedis Editions, Vichy: 2007, p. 7 and Michèle Bilimoff, "Les plantes, les homes et les dieux", Editions Ouest-France, Rennes: 2006, p. 26

In

Moulins

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Departement Allier, region Auvergne, near Black Madonnas of Cusset and Vichy, in the Chapel of the Black Virgin inside the Cathedral Our Lady of the Annunciation (Notre-Dame de l’Annontiation) , 11th century, 80 cm, very dark wood painted black in the 15th century.

Black Virgin,
Notre-Dame de Moulins, 
Patron of the Diocese of Moulins

 

Legend states that the original Black Madonna was brought to France from the Holy Land by a Lord of Bourbon. Somehow she came into the possession of King Louis IX, a.k.a. St. Louis, who gave her to the city of Moulins. St. Joan of Arc prayed before this Madonna in 1429.(*1)

The municipal archives of Moulins preserve the memory of a great miracle, which the Virgin Mary performed on November 21st 1655. As a terrible fire threatened to devour the whole town, a believer took the mantel of the Black Madonna and threw it onto the flames in a bold gesture of faith. Immediately the great fire extinguished. 

It was also the custom in Moulins, as in Marsat and other towns, to burn a wheel of wax before the Black Madonna. Some tie this tradition to various miracles where the Madonna saved a town from a great fire. Others say this was an ancient solar symbol of regeneration. 

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Our Lady of Moulins used to hold a lily (fleur de lys) in her left hand, but it was broken off. The flower is not only a symbol of the Blessed Virgin’s purity; it also became a symbol of Christendom in general and French Christian royalty in particular. Jesus holds a closed book of the gospels against his chest and blesses the world. The statue was crowned on May 22nd 1910.

On December 8th 1946, the future Pope John XXIII, then the papal nuncio in Paris, blessed an ex voto in the cathedral of Moulins in recognition of the protection the Black Madonna granted her town during the years of German occupation.

Ean Begg tells this legend related to the site: In Yzeure, likely the first home of the Black Madonna in the area and only one km to the East, there is an ancient Gallo-Roman spa. An underground passage reputedly led from it to the castle of the Bourbons at Moulins, next to the cathedral. In that underground passage a dragon grew unnoticed until it was slain by a hero.(*2) For more on dragons and Black Madonnas see Ronzières.


Footnotes
*1:Photos and info from French Wikipedia article on Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation de Moulins
*2: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, pp. 204-5

In

Mont-Saint-Michel

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Mont-Saint-Michel is a tiny tidal island on the coast of Normandy, very close to Brittany, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. The Black Madonna is in the Western crypt also called chapel of Our Lady of the Underworld, late 19th century, plaster statue recalls ancient Black Madonna that was destroyed during the Revolution.
Photo: 
Flore Allemandou

Notre-Dame du Mont-Tombe
Notre-Dame Sous Terre
Notre-Dame des Morts
(i.e. Our Lady of Mt. Tomb, under the Earth, or of the Dead)

As I explain in the introduction under the sub-heading “Our Lady of the Good Death: the Dark Mother as Guide through the Underworld,” many Black Madonnas were associated with the realm of the dead. Since this realm was imagined to lie deep in the earth I like translating “Notre-Dame (de) Sous Terre” as “Our Lady of the Underworld,” though it literally means Our Lady from under the earth. (Chartre’s Black Madonna is the most famous one by that title. The ‘de’ is usually added in Chartres, but not often in Mont-Saint-Michel.) 

The original lady of Mont-Saint-Michel was a classic example of a Queen of the Underworld. Until the 8th century her island was called Mont-Tombe, i.e. Mount Tomb because it was a Gallic burial site. 

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Then, in 708, legend recounts, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction (for fear he was going mad) until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger. Only then did he relent and build a little cave-sanctuary among the dead. The only thing left of this oratory, which only held about 100 people, is one wall of the crypt-chapel called Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre.(*1)

According to Ean Begg the Black Madonna that was destroyed during the Revolution wasn’t brought to the Mount until 867, when a certain Bernard le Sage brought her from the Holy Land.(*2) Before that apparently another statue of Mary was venerated in the cave as Our Lady of the Underworld. It seems that she had to make room for the more important statue from the Holy Land, was moved to another chapel and became known as Our Lady of the Thirty Candles (Notre-Dame-des-Trente-Cierges).

In 966, the sanctuary was given to the Benedictines who turned St. Aubert’s oratory into a church, still called Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre. This is the oldest extant building on the mount and it dominated the island until the 11th century. Then a great Romanesque abbey church was built on top of it, turning it into a crypt.(*3) This church was in turn replaced by the even greater gothic church of the 13th century that remains today. With all this construction, the original church of Our Lady of the Underworld was covered up and forgotten.

With the French Revolution the abbey was turned into a notorious prison and wasn’t reclaimed for more noble purposes until about 70 years later, in 1863. Then excavations unearthed this oldest building on the mount and an attempt was made to restore religious life and the cult of Our Lady of the Underworld. The chapel (also known as the Western crypt and the place where St. Aubert found his final resting place) was rededicated to her. 

However, it proved difficult to reestablish a spiritual life on this mount. For too many centuries, even long before the Revolution, its abbey had been entangled in the politics and wars of the area. The various communities of monks who inhabited the place often had a hard time focusing on spiritual matters. And so it wasn’t until 1966 that a few monks returned to the mount. The present monastic community didn’t settle in until 2001 and it seems that it took them a while to figure out what to do with the 19th century plaster Black Madonna. For a long time she was deemed as "of no artistic value",(*4) an embarrassment that was more or less hidden in different parts of the abbey. Perhaps because of our renewed interest in Black Madonnas the monks now deem her something better than no Black Madonna at all. It seems that she was recently moved from a little side room to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Underworld in the Western crypt in order to keep the memory of the ancient Mother of the Dead alive.

Open daily, May to September - 09:30 to 19:00; October to April - 09:30 to 18:00, daily mass at 12:15.


Footnotes
*1: le-mont-saint-michel.org/histoirea.htm
*2: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985 p.204
*3:
aly-abbara.com/voyages_personnels/france/Mont_St_Michel/abbaye_St_Michel_eglise_abbatiale_1.php
*4: Ean Begg, op. cit. p.204

In

Molompize

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In the chapelle de Vauclair, department Cantal in the Auvergne region. If you go from the Black Madonna of Murat to the Black Madonna of Le Puy, you drive right through this village. Otherwise it would hardly be worth visiting these whitened ladies. 11/12th century, 73 cm, painted wood. photo: Ella Rozett

Notre-Dame de Vauclair

 

 

Here is another whitened Black Madonna. She was restored in 1954. (For more on the issue of restoring Black Madonnas to their original colors see Ronziere and Saint Guiraud.) At least here we can see why so many formerly Black Madonnas have those silly red cheeks: it’s because that’s how they were indeed originally painted. See the red coming out from under later layers of dark color?

Tradition says that this Black Madonna was brought to France from Antioch by a crusader and that she grants miracles, especially the healing of blindness. 

The original is in the nearby church of Sainte Foy, which is closed to visits, due to it being in disrepair. This resin copy lives where the original was venerated for centuries. Through the crystal on her chest one can see the relic hidden inside her. All statues of that period had relics inside in order to pass as reliquaries and avoid being defamed as idols. Hers is a red piece of fabric with the Greek letter alpha inscribed on it. Nothing more is known about it.

Her feast day is celebrated on September 8th, the day tradition claims to be the birthday of Mary.

Old potcards are sold in the church that show the madonna when she was still black, crowned, and robed.

Old potcards are sold in the church that show the madonna when she was still black, crowned, and robed.

Madame Dulac claims that Vauclair comes from the French vois clair! i.e. see clearly! - with bodily and spiritual eyes. No wonder this Madonna, who draws us into her wide open, staring eyes, is associated with the ability to see.

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Notre-Dame de Molompize

There is a second Madonna in the church of Molompize. She once was black and is listed on the University of Dayton, Ohio web page on Black Madonnas. Their photo is a reversed image of the same Madonna I photographed after she was whitened. Ean Begg also lists this Madonna and says that she stems from the 15/16th century.

I have found no French website that bothers to mention her anymore since she was whitened. Notre-Dame de Vauclair definitely takes center stage in Molompize.

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In

Mende

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In the cathedral, Place Urbain V, Mende is in the department Lozère, region Languedoc-Roussillon. 70 cm, 11th century or 1219 are given as possible dates of creation, olive wood.
Photos: crowned and robed as seen in church, Ella Rozett
without robes, Jean-Francois Salles

1. Notre-Dame de Mende
Queen of the city and county

 

Mende.jpg

While this Black Madonna is robed in the traditional garb that hides most of the statue, her picture on the votive candles sold in the church shows her round belly and nipples quite clearly. It gives her that aura of fertility goddess. 
The beautiful cathedral is dedicated to her and to the 3rd century Saint Privat, whose remains used to be kept in the crypt of the cathedral. They were mostly destroyed during the Wars of Religion and the Revolution. What is left of them is kept in the hermitage chapel on the sacred mountain at whose foot Mende lies. 
This city really has all the marks of an ancient holy site: a Black Madonna in a cathedral built on top of a pre-Christian temple, a second Black Madonna at a well, a sacred mountain with a cave (la Grotte du Mont Mimat) to which annual pilgrimages are still held. No wonder the Queen of Mende’s altar, like that of many Black Madonnas, bears the inscription “privileged altar”. Special graces are given here.

Tradition says that she was brought to Mende from the Middle East between 1212 and 1222 by the bishop and crusader Guillaume de Peyre. Her first mention in historic documents is from 1249. Another church document from 1857 lists the relics imbedded in her back: “some hairs of the Virgin Mary, pieces of her clothing and her tomb, fragments of the true cross, as well as of saints Peter, Paul, Andrew, Martial, Dennis, and James.” (*1)
She was saved from Protestants and Revolutionaries by courageous church ladies who risked their lives for her. It was during the Wars of Religion that she lost baby Jesus and her hands. Her survival was celebrated with a solemn coronation in 1894 on August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, a national holiday in France.

Fifty years later World War II was raging. A notice on the wall of the cathedral tells this story: On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Our Lady’s coronation, in 1944, Mende was occupied by two thousand Germans. During the traditional August 15th procession in honor of the Queen of Heaven, something of a political nature happened around Mende that normally would have had tragic consequences. In desperation the guardian of Notre-Dame put the city under her protection and promised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her coronation with all the pomp and circumstance it deserved as soon as it would be safe to do so. Two days later the city was intact and not a single German left in it. After the war, on 8/18/1946, this miracle and her coronation were commemorated with a triumphant celebration. 
Ean Begg mentions a perpetual lamp in her shrine offered to her in 1314, but I didn’t see it in 2009.(*2) Perhaps it stayed in the main altar space where she resided for a while before she was moved to a side chapel. I’m always happy when a perpetual lamp burns before Our Lady because it indicates the presence of the divine.
Begg also mentions the crypt of Saint Privat from Gallo-Roman times, built on top of a Pagan temple, but the crypt is sealed now and only opened for the occasional burial of a bishop.

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2. Our Lady of the Fountain (Notre-Dame de la fontaine/du puits)

In the Rue Notre-Dame behind the cathedral down to the right, 50 cm. Photos: Ella Rozett

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Note the angel in the mural above theMadonna holding a scroll. It says “Nigra sum sed formosa”, i.e. “I am black but beautiful”. It is a phrase from the Song of Songs often quoted in Black Madonna shrines and drawing positive attention to her blackness. (For more see introduction under “The Church’s Explanation for Black Madonnas”, point 7.)


Footnotes
*1: Félix Buffière, Ce tant rude Gévaudan, volume I, p.937
*2: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, p. 200

In

Mauriac

Mauriac black madonna.jpg

In the 11th century basilica in the center of town, Rue Notre Dame, Puy-de-Dome department, Auvergne, 13th century, 114 cm. Because she was mutilated during the Revolution and patched back together, her body is made of walnut wood, her arms of pear wood, and baby Jesus of oak, then all was painted uniformly black.

Our Lady of Miracles

 

One evening around the year 507 A.D., Théodechilde, daughter of the Merovingian King Clovis saw a great light in a nearby forest. She headed for that place and drew near in time to witness a gathering around a sacred stone.(*1) By the time she arrived on the scene the only ones left were a statue of the Virgin Mary guarded by two stone lions. This was clearly a sign that Mary was to take the place of the goddess Cybele, whose presence on earth was a sacred stone and who was usually accompanied by two lions. The torch of the Great Mother, Queen of Heaven, had been passed on to the Virgin Mary.

Princess Théodechilde let a chapel be built on the place with stones taken from a pagan temple, and founded a Benedictine monastery to guard it. (The remains of which can still be visited.) She ordered the nuns to always keep an 'eternal lamp' burning before the miraculously appeared image. To this day two stone lions guard the entrance of the church, one is the original the other was stolen and replaced by a copy.(*2)

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Though the log of Our Lady's many miracles was burnt during the Revolution, people still remember some of them. They say she stopped a devastating period of rains in 1816 and the cholera in 1832. During the Crusades two French men were captured in the Orient and chained in a dungeon. When they implored Our Lady of Miracles for help, she transported them, during the night, in an instant to Mauriac. Their irons can still be admired as ex-voti in the church.

By the 11th century, so many pilgrims flocked to Our Lady of Miracles that a bigger church was needed. (Even St. Dominic spent two days at her feet.) Yet the local priest was more concerned about enlarging his own house than the house of God. When he tried to do so by infringing upon the garden of the Queen of Heaven, she struck him and two of his workmen dead. In order to appease her wrath, the present day basilica was quickly erected.

Throughout the Middle Ages, people wanted to be buried as close to an altar or holy place as possible, in order to ensure their soul's salvation. Hence a great cemetery grew up around the church of Mauriac. Religious plays reenacting Biblical stories were held in it and a rare lantern of the dead still stands there to this day.(*3) People used to light a candle in it each night to guide the newly deceased on their journey and to announce to the community that someone had died. Similar, though much bigger 'lanterns of the dead' remain in the Dordogne region, e.g. in Atur, Coussac Bonneval, and Sarlat.

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Jacque Huynen and Ean Begg draw attention to the 10th century baptismal font in the basilica sporting a Templar cross and other symbols. To them these "esoteric" signs point to a connection between Black Madonnas and the initiation rites of Christian orders which used to practice alchemy. The three children who are portrayed during their baptism represent alchemists (who called themselves 'children') receiving initiation.(*4)

Yet much of what certain authors call "secret, esoteric knowledge" is perfectly mainstream. E.g. baptism is routinely referred to as a 'Christian rite of initiation' in which the old self dies with Christ and the new self resurrects with him. The teachings aren't hidden, though the words are "self-secret" in the Tibetan sense, i.e. meaningless for those who haven't prepared spiritually to hear their transformative message.

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What is much more interesting in this church is the local saint who is honored there. It is Blessed Catinon Menette, a poor French peasant woman who lived an exemplary Christian life. During the Revolution this nun accompanied the parish priest to the guillotine, not heeding the insults and threats to her own life. That's why she is portrayed with a cloth stained with the blood of the priest. But why is she portrayed as brown skinned when she was a white woman? "Just the style that imitates Byzantine icons. It means nothing," says the present parish priest. 

Yet, the priest who was killed is portrayed in another icon of the same style and his skin is white. So maybe the icon writer's intent was to portray her as a devotee of the Black Madonna who took on some of her divine mother's characteristics. Like Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene she stood by the priest through the darkest part of his life and death. She exposed and opened herself to the challenging darkness of the world and the nurturing darkness of the Divine, and it rubbed off on her.

An annual procession on the Sunday following May 9th still draws many pilgrims. Since 824 A.D. that date is considered to be the anniversary of the Virgin's apparition to Théodechilde. The children of the town play an active role in the festivities. The boys dress up as knights and St. John the Baptists, the girls as angels and Virgin Marys. Beautiful songs are sung that day to Our Lady of Miracles. Here is one of them: 

You, Our Lady, to you we sing! 
You, Our Lady, to you we pray! 
1. You who carries life
You who carries joy
You who touches the spirit
You who touches the cross.
2. You who gives hope
You who keeps faith
You who passes by death
You who stands in joy.
3. You, your heart on your sleeve
You, honey and wine
You, joy to the eyes
Oh smile of God. (*5)


Footnotes
*1:" Notre Dame des Miracles: Mauriac, cite de la Vierge" a booklet published by the parish of Mauriac and available in the sacristy translates "Saint Peter" instead of sacred stone. Since Peter means stone or rock, I guess the true meaning has to be determined by the context and is subject to interpretation.
*2: Jean-Robert Maréchal, Les Saints Qui Guérissent en Auvergne, Éditions Ouest-France: 2004, p. 115-6
*3: Ean Begg, p.198
*4: Ibid. and Huynen, p. 159-160
*5: The parish booklet, p.9

In

Marsat

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In the church Notre-Dame de l'Assomption. Marsat is between Clermont-Ferrand and Riom, Puy-de-Dome department, Auvergne, sculpted in the 12th or 13th century, painted black, red and gold during Romanticism (ca. 1760-1870), 80 cm, painted walnut wood. 
Photo: Francis Debaisieux

Our Lady of Marsat

 

 

Although this Black Madonna was light skinned for most of her existence, she was no less powerful or miraculous. Since her whole style matched the classical Black Virgins of France, she was an easy pick for the Romanticists, who painted quite a few Madonnas black.(*1)

Romanticism was a cultural protest movement against the one-sided glorification of reason. It wanted to restore balance between the 'light of reason' and the primordial darkness of nature, between scientific progress and the spiritual depth of medieval traditions, between instinctual faith and knowledge.

Photo: Ella Rozett

Photo: Ella Rozett

In choosing Our Lady of Marsat for their message of fertile darkness, Romanticists drew renewed attention to one of the oldest Marian shrines in France. Tradition has it that the cult of Mary in Marsat was established by one of the seventy two apostles whom Jesus sent out into the world. His name was Martial and he brought with him a holy souvenir, a belt of Mother Mary. The first written record of this belt and miracles happening at its shrine stem from Gregory of Tours, the 6th century 'father of French history'. From the 7th century to the Revolution first nuns then monks were charged with guarding Mary's shrine and belt. The remains of their monastery can still be visited, but the belt somehow ended up in Prato, Italy. 

In 916 A.D. the Normans were about to attack Riom, a small town three km from Marsat. In terror the inhabitants begged the Queen of Heaven for protection. They vowed to offer her every year at her sanctuary in Marsat a candle as long as the circumference of their town, if only she would save them. She granted their request and since then until 1792, every year on the Sunday after the Ascension, a procession of faithful brought an enormously long wick dipped in wax and rolled up on a wheel, from Riom to Marsat. This is how the wheels of fire, offered to Our Lady in several churches, are explained. Other great miracles performed by the Madonna of Marsat include delivering her children from the plague in 1631.

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The statue was solemnly crowned in 1939, but only wears her crown on special occasions, such as her feast day on the first Sunday in May.

As many Christian sanctuaries in the Auvergne, so this one too is near a sacred well. A little road side shrine covers the spring of clear water and houses another 12th century Black Madonna that was mutilated and is called Our Lady of Pity. Pitiful Lady would be a more accurate name for the beheaded, barely recognizable remains of a mother and child behind the metal grid.(*2) 
 

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You'll find this fountain and the old public laundry basin its waters flow into, within 200 feet of the entrance to the church, through an ally. It says that the water is non-potable. Maybe the nearby Volvic bottling facility does not want competition. Photos: Kaaren Patterson (l), Ella Rozett (r)

Our Lady of Marsat has been associated with the theme of light and darkness ever since the above mentioned St. Gregory of Tours recounted the following experience: He came to Marsat by night and saw the whole building full of light. The door opened for him by itself, but as he entered, the church was plunged into darkness.(*3) The story calls to mind John 1:5 "The light shines in the darkness…" but also psalm 139:12 "Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one."

Several authors have guessed at the color symbolism of this Black Madonna, dressed in red and gold. I suggest red and gold represent her two natures, human and divine, which in later centuries will be denoted by red and blue. (See introduction) Mary shares these two natures with her son, as we all potentially do. This would explain why Jesus' undergarment is pure gold, while his outer garment is as red as Mary's: He was divine first, then became human. Mary's dress in contrast, was first painted red, then overlaid with a golden hue: she was human first, then became divinized.


Footnotes
*1: Brigitte Romankiewicz, Die schwarze Madonna:Hintergründe einer Symbolgestalt, Patmos Verlag, 2004, pp. 124-128
*2: Jean-Robert Maréchal, Les Saints Qui Guérissent en Auvergne, Éditions Ouest-France: 2004, p.101
*3: in his De Gloria Martyrum, quoted in: Ean Begg,The Cult of the Black Virgin, London, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1985, p.197.

In

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

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In the church in the center of this little seaside town in the Camargue, Provence. Life size. photo: Ella Rozett

Sara la Kali
(Sarah the Black One) 
Sarah the Egyptian

 

Although Sara la Kali is not Mary, the mother of Christ, she is often discussed in the context of Black Madonnas because she is a Dark Mother. The Gypsies(*1) venerate her as their queen, but she is also a mother to all the local Catholics who feel a connection to her. Her devotees fall on their knees before her, part her many robes and dive in head first under her skirts, resting their devout heads on her feet. Thus they pray and when they are done, they carefully and lovingly put each veil back in its place. Then the next person comes, parts the curtain, and plunges in.

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So who is this Saint Sarah?
There are many answers to this question:

1. Saint Sarah's first appearance stems from Vincent Philippon's book The Legend of the Saintes-Maries, written in 1521.(*2) In this record of an older oral tradition she is the Egyptian servant of three Maries, Mary Magdalene and two other women who came to Jesus' tomb the morning of his resurrection, carrying spices for anointing the dead. The people of Provence call them Marie Jacobé and Marie Salomé, though Mark the evangelist calls them Salome and Mary the mother of James. Vincent Philippon portrays Sarah as a charitable woman, who helped people by collecting alms. This activity led to the popular belief that she was a Gypsy. 

A much earlier medieval legend recounts the story of the "three Maries" without mentioning Sarah. It speaks of the first Jewish persecution of Christians. At that time our three ladies along with Martha and Lazarus of Bethanie were condemned to what seemed like certain death: They were set adrift in the Mediterranean Sea in a leaky little skiff without sails or oars. Yet, by the will of God they arrived unharmed in France as the first missionaries of Christ. The town where they came ashore is now called Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. While Mary Magdalene went on from there to evangelize Marseille, the other two Maries (and Sarah) stayed.

2. The Gypsies picked up the belief that Sarah was one of them and turned her into a French Gypsy princess, schooled in the esoteric wisdom of her people. One day Sarah had visions which informed her that the saints who had been present at the death of Jesus would come, and that she must help them. Soon she saw them arrive in a boat struggling against a rough sea. She threw her cloak on the waves and by the power of her prayer it became a raft with which she helped the saints reach the shore safely. Soon she became their first convert in France.(*3)

3. Yet another legend claims that the 3 Marys coming to France after Jesus' ascension into Heaven carried with them the "Holy Grail" and that this holy blood was actually Sarah, the daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. (Other similar legends call their child St. Michael.)

4. Some say Sara la Kali is a form of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. This seems plausible since the Gypsies themselves are descendents of India. Kali means black both in Sanskrit and in Romani, the language still spoken by many European Gypsies. Perhaps for the purpose of appeasing the Catholic Church, Kali was hidden inside another story of the sacred feminine, that of Sarah. The Gypsies couldn't very well tell the clergy: "By the way, we're keeping our goddess of death and destruction in your basement!" 

Since the gypsies themselves deny this interpretation adamantly(*4) one could only posit an unconscious continuity between their ancestors worshipping Mother Kali in India and their contemporaries celebrating Sara la Kali as their mother.(*5) I would say the same subconscious continuity of the Dark Mother archetype plays a role in all Black Madonna worship. Whether earlier Dark Mothers were called Kali, Cybele, Artemis, or any other name, doesn't make much difference in this context. What matters is that the archetype holds something we still need. For more on links between the Indian Kali, the Near Eastern Great Mother, and Black Madonnas see the introduction to this index, under the headings "Pre-Christian Black Mothers" and "Celtic Goddesses".

5. In 2006 I prayed and meditated at the feet of Sara la Kali, asking her: "Who are you?" The response was a somewhat angry insistence: "I will not answer that question!" Then I realized that the black feminine at the heart of the white Church is meant to hold the place of unlabeled mystery, a space that is to remain free of any concepts, free of arrogant claims like: "I know the absolute truth about her and you'd better listen to me!"

The Gypsies say, at the time of Sarah, they worshipped the Goddess Ishtari or Astarte. Once a year they carried a statue of her on their shoulders into the sea to receive its blessings. Now it is Sarah herself who is carried to the sea. Each year on May 24-25, a great crowd of European Gypsies, tourists, and local Catholics gathers to process the statues of Saints Sarah, Mary Salome and Mary Jacob into the waters and then back to their church. Only in 1935 did the Gypsies obtain permission to dip their queen into the sea.(*6) 

Bathing sacred images is an ancient custom to be found in many cultures. Once a year the Romans bathed their goddess Cybele in a river. To this day, many peoples bathe their holy images, from non-Christians in the Philippines, who bathe statues in blood(*7) to Buddhists bathing baby Buddha on his birthday in tea, to Hindus submerging their Goddess Durga in water. Until modern times, some Christian communities used to bathe statues of Mary on Good Friday with wine signifying the blood of Christ.(*8) Likely, all these practices go back to the dawn of civilizations when the blood of sacrificial animals was poured over a sacred stone representing a god.

In 1448 the King of Provence had a part of the crypt excavated and found some remains of Marie Jacobé and Marie Salomé, plus a sacred healing stone that is referred to as 'the pillow of the saints'. Now the relics accompany Sarah and the two Maries during the great procession.


Footnotes

*1: Though many consider the term 'Gypsies' to be politically incorrect, no consistent, more correct term is universally agreed upon by the 'Sinti and Roma". Hence I stick with what people know.
*2: See: an excellent article on "Saint Sarah" in www.en.wikipedia.org lists all these legends with sources. 
*3: Franz de Ville, Tziganes, Bruxelles, 1956
*4: See article Myths and Traditions of the Roma on
http://www.imninalu.net/traditionsRoma.htm 
*5: Some render Sara la Kali as 'Queen Kali', though it is more correctly translated as 'Sarah the Black One'. cf. Jacques Huynen, "L'Enigme des Vierges Noires", Chartres: editions Jean-Michael Garnier, 1994, p. 
*6: 182 Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, p. 221
*7: See: Mary Beth Moser, p.116
*8: See: Francois Graveline, "Vierges Romanes", editions Debaisieux, p. 26 and a 2008 pamphlet in the chapel of the Black Madonna of Aurillac.

In

Ronzieres

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In her sanctuary above the village, which lays half way between St. Gervazy and Vassivière. 9 km SW of Issoire, Puy-de-Dôme department, Auvergne region, 13th century?, 60 cm, painted wood. Photo: Mark Veermans

Our Lady of Brambles
(Notre Dame de Ronzières)

 

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This is one of those poor Black Virgins who had her color stolen. She was restored to her original pigmentation of 800 years ago, but if you ask me, "face lifts" don't work - not on people and not on ancient statues. Antiques and ancient art should be restored without removing the patina that gives them character and value. In spite of her touched up face and the fact that you can barely see her in the niche where she is kept behind two sets of bars, she is still considered a Black Madonna and her shrine is still worth a visit. Here is why:

The hill of her sanctuary lays half way between two of her famous sisters, the Black Madonnas of St. Gervazy and Vassivière. (Driving from St. Gervazy to Vassivière via Ronzières takes about 70 minutes.) Her hill overlooks a great plain and is steeped in ancient history. Early Medieval walls fortify her Romanesque church and enclose an area that comprises remnants of dwellings from the time of the Roman occupation before the Christian era.

Photo by  Jean Dif

Photo by Jean Dif

Madam Dulac, on her magnificent French website on "Sacred Sites" points out architectural elements of a pre-Christian temple in the church of the Black Madonna (see fotos on right). 
Ronzières also lies on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella. A tiny cabin at the foot of the Madonna's hill can still offer refuge to a couple of pilgrims.

Photo by  Jean Dif

Photo by Jean Dif

What qualifies this lady as a Black Madonna in my mind is her connection to earth elements, a distant Pagan past, and the reputation of being a miracle worker. 
There is a revered lime tree next to the church, under which mass is celebrated on the Sunday closest to September 8th. The Black Madonna is brought out for this occasion, a tradition that goes back "a very, very long time", according to a lady of the parish. Nobody remembers what makes this tree special, except that its roots are ancient. Most of the tree itself has died, but new suckers have grown into its second or third incarnation.

Legend recounts that Our Lady of Brambles was installed in this place by a saintly priest called Baudimus (Baudime in French). He was a Christian hero who lived around 300 A.D. Pope Fabian sent him with a group of missionaries from Rome to evangelize Gaul (France). He and his brother or very close friend St. Nectarius (Nectaire) ended up in the Auvergne. Their way of "evangelizing" by hostile take over of Pagan holy sites, plunged them into conflict with the local population. St. Nectaire turned a temple of Apollo into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. To this day the church sits on Mount Cornadore, a hill top surrounded by a circle of six dolmens and menhirs about one km in diameter. Saint Nectaire ended up getting killed by a Pagan chieftain. Both, Baudimus and Nectarius are buried in the church Saint Nectaire, about 10 km from Ronzières as the crow flies. That church houses another whitened Black Madonna.

The reliquary bust of St. Baudime

The reliquary bust of St. Baudime

Baudimus found an ancient spring in Ronzières that was dedicated to the fairies and, much like his brother, dedicated it instead to Mary the Queen of Heaven. He erected a chapel over the spring, placed this statue in it and preached the Gospel there. From then on, say the Christians, the spring ran with healing water.

Apparently the spirits of the earth weren't too thrilled with this take over, for soon the saint had to do battle with a dragon. We know that in Asia dragons are believed to live underground, as the guardians of the earth and its watercourses. But in Europe too there were dragons without wings, called Lind worm, or simply worm. The German word Lindwurm conveys the idea of beautifully glinting gold or silver scales. These represented the "telluric forces", veins of energy running in the earth, called "veins of the dragon".

Mary holding a tamed dragon like a lap dog, a very rare type, Chartres relief on the "royal gate".

Mary holding a tamed dragon like a lap dog, a very rare type, Chartres relief on the "royal gate".

In Christian thinking the dragon represents the forces of evil that, along with the forces of good, suffuse the world and every human heart. It is the shadow, the dark side. The time of dragon slayers was a time when humanity still hoped evil could be vanquished once and for all in a battle with outside forces. The followers of Jesus at the time of St. Baudime expected that the Kingdom of Heaven could be established on earth by spreading Christian rule everywhere. With the centuries, that proved to be not so and dragon slayers became something of the distant past. People understood that evil was not something outside of ourselves, but an inner force everybody had to grapple with. When we learned to recognize and integrate our own shadows, formerly white Madonnas became honored as black. Eventually they arose from their thrones and stood on living snakes (the dragons of old). Sweetly smiling, they hold the living snake in its place under their naked feet, as if to teach us not to fear nor fight our shadow, but to make peace with it by mastering and keeping it in its proper place.
But in the 4th century Christians still engaged in outer religious battle against evil, which they saw manifested in Pagan religions and the dark forces of the earth. And so Baudimus' dragon was said to be a hideous monster which lived in a crevice of the cliff of Ronzières and terrorized the local towns. During a fierce battle between the saint and the dragon the monster left its claw marks in a rock that can still be seen on the path near the spring of the fairies. Before it was defeated, the beating of its tail caused the South part of the plateau to cave in. That's what they say.

the 'step of the ox'

the 'step of the ox'

After that there was peace, maybe for a hundred years, then "the dragon" reared its ugly head again. This time it was in the form of the "barbaric invasions" into the Roman Empire that lasted from the 3rd to the 5th century. Saint Baudimus's chapel was destroyed during one of these orgies of death and destruction and his Madonna disappeared. Yet the people didn't forget that the place was holy and many centuries later the statue reappeared, now a Black Madonna. According to Ean Begg this happened in the 11th century.* As so often, Heaven used an ox to point out where the precious treasure lay buried in the earth. It is said that an ox got his foot stuck in a whole in a rock. When the cowherd came to his aid, he discovered the Black Madonna under the animals' foot. To this day, girls who are looking for a husband slip their foot into the "step of the ox" and deposit an offering of flowers right there or in the church.

You may find the step of the ox, the foot print of the dragon's claws and the fairies' spring if you follow the little path that leads down the hill behind the church. It is part of the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostella.

the fairies' spring

the fairies' spring

the path to it

the path to it

The place the unmarried maidens seek is not too far down from the church, in the middle of the path. To get to the spring, you have to go all the way down the hill, then turn left off of the path. The claw marks are in the middle of the path, near the spring. It takes a bit of attentive looking and tuning into the spirit of the place to find these land marks. Look for tilted up stones that mark the way and for little green dots that mark the rocks (see top right in picture). Good luck!

the "claw marks of the dragon"

the "claw marks of the dragon"

A couple of miracles attributed to the Black Madonna are still fondly remembered in the parish: In 1911 a little girl was healed against all expectation during a mass that her grandfather had asked to be celebrated for her in Ronzières.

In the 19th century the Madonna revealed to a boy that he was called to be a priest. It didn't make sense at the time because the lad had a handicap that precluded him from qualifying for the priesthood. In time however, he was miraculously healed by Don Bosco, a saintly Italian priest. Hence he could fulfill the Virgin's revelation. 


* Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, p.217.

In

Font-Romeu/Odeillo

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In the summer (from Trinity Sunday in early June to the Sunday closest to Sept. 8th) Our Lady resides in the hermitage above Font-Romeu, the rest of the year in Odeillo, about 3 km down the hill, department Pyrénées-Orientales, 66 cm, painted wood, recently whitened.
photo: Mark Veermans

Notre-Dame de Font-Romeu

 

 

Modern Font-Romeu is a rather unattractive ski resort, but with an ancient history. For more than a thousand years its fountain at the hermitage (l’Ermitage) above the town was a stop for pilgrims (‘romeux’ in the old Catalan of the region) on the way to Santiago de Compostella. Hence Font Romeu is the ‘fountain of the pilgrims’ and it was always a place of veneration of the Virgin Mary. The first church at the sacred fountain was built in 1035. In the past it was like the Lourdes of the Eastern Pyrenees. Pilgrims seeking healing from serious conditions would plunge nine times either into the fountain or into the pool in the adjoining building. But now there seems to be little if any faith in the water, which tastes like chlorinated city water. Only the ex-voti in the Ermitage and the days of processions still witness to the shrine's former glory.

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Odeillo, where Our Lady resides most of the year, is a humble little village, but since DorresErrHix, and Puigcherda(across the Spanish border) with their Black Madonnas are all only minutes away, this Madonna is worth a visit.

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Her legend describes a cowherd from Odeillo who used to watch his herd up the mountain. One day, one of his bulls started going off by itself and hanging around a fountain. There it would dig into the ground with its hoofs and bellow in a most unusual way. Worried that the bull may get lost, the cow herd tried everything to call the animal back to the herd – but to no avail. Finally he got very angry and headed towards the bull ready to beat it into submission, but suddenly a curiosity took hold of him. Rather than taking out hi anger on the poor animal he went to observe the bull’s behavior more closely. That’s when he discovered the statue of the Black Madonna in the well, which the bull had been trying to show him all along. With wings of joy the man ran to the village to announce the miracle. Soon the whole parish gave thanks to Heaven by building a chapel on the spot where the Madonna appeared. 

She is considered the patron of cattle. As such she spends the summers with the cattle up on the mountain. Then, in fall, she comes back down to the village with the cows. Each time it’s a festive procession. The same ritual is performed in Vassivière. For more on the connection between Black Madonnas and cows see Olot.

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In

Rocamadour

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In her sanctuary, near Quercy, Lot department, Midi-Pyrénées, 9th - 12th century (?) though attributed to St. Luke, wood used to be covered in blackened silver of which some strips are still in place, 66 cm.

Our Lady of Rocamadour
(Notre-Dame de Rocamadour)
Our Lady of the Poor
(Notre-Dame des Pauvres)


As a Christian holy site Rocamadour dates back to the 10th century, but as a young priest giving a tour pointed out in 2008: "People have been praying here for 20,000 years." Indeed just up the hill in the next village over, one can visit a cave with traces of neolithic sacred paintings. 
In the Middle Ages the sanctuary of the Black Madonna became an important point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. Many saints, kings, and queens have come here seeking the blessings of the Queen of Heaven, most notably St. Bernard of Clairveaux. 
This spectacular site is set in the rocky side of a steep river gorge. In 1166, the remains of a certain Blessed Amadour were found here, buried next to a cave oratory dedicated to Mary. Hence the name Roc-Amadour. 
One legend says the man was the servant of the Blessed Mother and like a nanny and tutor to Jesus. They met when the Holy Family was on their flight to Egypt. Amadour owned a field of grain that miraculously grew tall enough to hide the fugitives from Herod's henchmen. Before Mary left this world, she recommended that, upon her assumption, Amadour go to live as a hermit in France. He did as he was told and took with him this statue, which Luke the Evangelist had carved. When he arrived in the river gorge of Rocamadour, he placed the holy image in a cave dedicated to a pre-Christian trinity of goddesses. Thus he stopped the human sacrifice practiced there and Christianized the place. But, similar to Le Puy, there is still a druidic stone under the altar.

Another legend claims this Amadour, besides being all of the above, was also none other than Zacchaeus, the disciple of Jesus mentioned in the Bible. This story gives him a wife, Veronica, the woman who, according to a very common tradition, wiped the face of Jesus during his passion. 

During the Wars of Religion the bones of Amadour were literally pulverized and scattered. Now only his empty tomb remains.

Our Lady of Rocamadour, photo: Ella Rozett

Our Lady of Rocamadour, photo: Ella Rozett

The Black Madonna of Rocamadour may not be a pretty statue, but it is one of the most powerful, famous, and ancient ones. Our Mother often challenges us not to judge with worldly eyes and not to reject something as not holy because it doesn't satisfy our mundane expectations. Our Lady of the Poor reminds us, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

Once you meet her in person, she seems perfectly elegant and beautiful. Through the eyes of the devotee she looks like the queen in this modern icon, which hangs in the crypt.

In the 12th century a collection of 126 reported miracles attributed to Our Lady of Rocamadour was compiled and many more have been recounted since. She has healed the sick and insane, punished criminals, threatened and converted those who did not respect her, won battles for her followers, brought dead babies back to life at least long enough to be baptized, freed captives, protected sailors, helped women conceive and give birth, and performed just about every other imaginable miracle.

Here is one of those 12th century stories:

Three pilgrims from Gosa were passing through the lonely wastelands near Saint-Guilhem, when they were led astray by thieves along remote and impassable tracks, over steep mountains and along valley floors. The robbers treated these innocent people injuriously and attempted to steal the property belonging to these poor of Christ. But the advocate of all mankind, the powerful Lady of Rocamadour, the exceptional star who lights up the world with her radiance, came to the aid of her servants as they called out to her. As was proper, she seized hold of the servants of iniquity, these workers of wickedness, and took away their sight, which is a human being's most cherished asset. She also paralyzed their hands and rendered them immobile like statues, out of pity leaving them only with the use of their tongues so that they could ask for mercy and express heartfelt penitence. And so with suppliant cries the robbers fell at the pilgrims' knees and asked that they placate the Lady, who is gentle but had been offended by their misdeeds, with their prayers and merits. The pilgrims were moved by the plight of the afflicted men, and their hearts were touched. They got down on the ground to pray, raised their voices to heaven, and asked the Lady of Mercy to take pity on the wretches. Then the unique Mother of Compassion, the people's hope for the forsaken who broke the necks of the dragon, the restorer of health, restored the thieves' senses and returned their bodies to their former health.(*1)

photo: Ella Rozett

photo: Ella Rozett

A special feature of Rocamadour is this unusual bell on the ceiling of the Black Madonna's chapel. People say it rings at the moment when Our Lady saves someone whose life was threatened, especially when that someone is a sailor. Many stories recount how men at sea had implored the Black Madonna of Rocamadour to save them from a storm. They promised to undertake a pilgrimage to her sanctuary if she'd spare their lives. Months later, when they arrived to fulfill their promise and told their story, the priests would say something like, 'Oh, so it was you for whom the bell tolled, letting us know that someone in distress at sea was being saved! We were expecting your arrival.' A stone plaque on the wall lists fifteen years between 1385 and 1617 when the miraculous bell rang without human intervention.


*1: Translated and analyzed by Marcus Bull, The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, UK: 1999, pp. 146-7

In

Fontgombault

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In the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Fontgombault, a Benedictine monastery of Salesian Brothers open daily 7 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2 - 7 p.m, department Indre, region Centre, 12th century.

Our Lady of a Happy Death
(Notre Dame du bien Mourir, literally Our Lady of Good Dying)

Our Lady's monastery goes back to a hermit by the name of Gombaud who lived in a cave on the site around the year 1000. This Black Madonna was originally known as Our Lady Mediatrix of All Graces. For centuries she watched over the Abbey from her vantage point, high above the northern portal of the abbatial church, overlooking a garden and the little cemetery of the monks. Her name change goes back to an incident during the Revolution: A young man had climbed a latter with the intent of destroying this statue. He was swinging a hammer, but before he could hurt her he fell and was fatally wounded. He lived just long enough to realized the error of his ways, repent, and make his peace with God and his Mother. This was seen as a great grace granted him and his Catholic brethren.

The reputedly miracle working Madonna of a Happy Death is invoked as a guide through the last test of dying as well as a helper in the conversion of sinners and healer of the sick.
In 1991, on the occasion of the nine-hundredth birthday of Fontgombault Abbey, the statue was solemnly crowned by the archbishop of Czestochowa, Poland. Now she no longer resides outside overlooking the cemetery but in a place of honor in the nave of the abbatial church.

In

Finestret

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In the Pyrénées-Oriental, near Codalet, in the church of St. Columba (or Colombe in French) at the top of the village.
photos: Ella Rozett

The Black Madonna
(La Vierge Noire)

 

This Madonna may be worth a visit if you are on the way to the famous 10th century Abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa, which sports its own “Black Madonna”.(*1) Finestret is a quaint village only a few kilometers off the main highway leading to Codalet where the abbey lays.

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The church St. Colombe is usually locked but someone in the house behind it has the key and if that person is home, she will gladly let you in. It doesn’t make for privacy or time to meditate, but for conversation, if you speak French. When I asked the two villagers in attendance whether they considered this a Black Madonna, one said yes, the other no. I would go with the no, because while she is darkened, she lacks any special stories of origin or miracles or what Ean Begg calls 'a living cult'. She is simply another meaningful part of the church decoration
Perhaps more interesting than this Dark Mother is the lady with the bear, St. Columba. For details on her and other local traditions on the theme of ‘Black Madonna, sacred woman and bear’ see Prats-de-Mollo.


*1: While the Madonna of Cuxa, whom Ean Begg calls black, is very old, she has also been restored to a very white color. She does not enjoy what Begg calls ‘a living cult’, but sits rather like in a museum. However, the 10th and 12th century remains of the Abbey of St. Michel de Cuxa are impressive.

In

Riom

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In the church by the same name, center of town, Rue du Commerce, 63200 Riom, department Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne, 17th century version of original venerated by St Louis in 1262,(*1) painted wood, about 80 cm, open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (5 p.m. in the winter, closed 12 -2) photo: Ella Rozett

Our Lady of Marthuret (Notre-Dame-du-Marthuret)

 

There are two important statues of the Mother of God venerated in this church and they often get mixed up: the Black Madonna Our Lady of Marthuret and the White Madonna Our Lady of the Bird (Vierge a l’oiseau).

The original Black Madonna is older than Our Lady of the Bird, but since the latter is of a rare beauty and expressiveness the locals seem to appreciate her more these days.(*2) The name of the church and the Black Madonna go back to the very beginning of the 14th century, when this building was erected on the property of Marc de Langheac, Lord of Thuret.(*3) That church replaced the original chapel, which burnt down in 1247 and housed the original Black Madonna, which, according to Ean Begg was venerated by St. Louis, King of France, in 1262. Many times after that first fire, the church was severely damaged by natural and manmade catastrophes, but it was always rebuilt and always included a Black Madonna with the title Our Lady of Marthuret.

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According to a plaque on the wall, Our Lady of the Bird (1 m 58 cm high) may not have been moved to this church until after the Revolution, but it was sculpted around the turn of the 14th to the 15th century. The butchers’ guild saved it from destruction by the revolutionaries by hiding it in a basement.

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“Our Lady of the Bird” is a type of Madonna that became popular in the late Middle Ages. It was inspired by the 2nd century apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas the Israelite, which includes a story about the child Jesus forming birds out of clay and breathing life into them. The famous Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Switzerland is such a Madonna.

In the 19th century, this statue was grey washed and installed on the outside at the entrance of the church. In 1932 the original was brought inside to protect her from the elements, while a copy took her outside place. In 1991 the grey wash was removed to reveal her original colors.


Footnotes
*1: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, p. 215
*2: The French Wikipedia site on the city of Riom talks only about this statue, without mentioning the Black Madonna: 
fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riom 
*3: 
http://www.archipicture.free.fr/france/auvergne/puy_dome/riom18.html

In

Err

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In her own church next to the parish church, 8 km East of Bourg-Madame on the Spanish border, department Pyrénées-Orientales. Only minutes away from 3 other Black Madonnas, see Dorres. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Restored and whitened in 2001.
photo: 
Mark Veermans

Notre-Dame d’Err, the Black Virgin, Morénéta

 

According to legend this ‘Black Madonna’ (as the locals still insist on calling her) was found miraculously in a tree by an animal guiding its shepherd. (For more on this theme see Olot.) This must have been some time before the year 930 when she received her own church right next to the parish church of the little village. Unusual indeed. Black Madonnas often demand their own churches, but never right next to an existing one. I suspect there was some feud between two groups that refused to worship together.

Our Lady of Err has a powerful reputation for averting all kinds of calamities. She heals humans and animals, ends droughts, and stops fires. She puts all things in order.

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In 1726 the parish council decides on the 2nd of July as the feast day of the Black Madonna of Err, to be celebrated with a procession that follows the exact same path ever since. The statue is taken down from her high altar the night before to be closer to her people. She is carried in procession by four girls wearing white dresses and veils.

Ean Begg mentions "fairy grottoes" in connection with this Madonna, but I couldn't find any more information about them. ("The Cult of the Black Virgin", Arkana, 1985, p. 187)

In

Egliseneuve d'Entraigues

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About 15 minutes S of her more famous sister in Vassivière, Puy-de Dome department, Auvergne., in a little road side chapel just outside of town on the road towards Condat. The little wooden statue was stolen in the fall of 2007. What remains is this beautiful image of her on a banner from 1958 used in processions and the sacred spring with a 1950 little stone copy of the original statue.
photos: Kaaren Patterso

Our Lady of the Holy Spring
(Notre-Dame de Font Sainte)

 

This Black Madonna's sacred water reputedly heals depression, languor, and apathy. It certainly lifted the spirits of our little group immediately.

A hand written 'historic notice' in the chapel tells the story of the place: Some time in the 16th century a shepherd roamed these parts with his sheep. He stopped to rest at the source of fresh water that emerged at the foot of a venerable, old tree. He had sculpted a Virgin and Child out of a piece of Oak and now decided that a hollow in the tree above the spring would be the right place for his statue. The artist signed his work, so to say, with his mark: the Virgin holds a sheep's foot in her right hand.
In the 17th century the old tree died and collapsed. That's when the first chapel was built to house Our Lady of Font Sainte. When that structure was near ruin in the 18th century it was replaced by the present chapel, which was inaugurated shortly before the Revolution. Many pilgrims would gather here, especially on the 15th of August, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary into heaven (which is a national holiday in France).

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During the troubled period following the Revolution the Virgin was hidden and thus saved from profanation. The sanctuary was sold into the private hands of some nobleman. When order returned to France, the statue was placed once more into her chapel, where worship and masses could resume once more.

In 1950 the chapel was completely restored and the humble little sanctuary received a great privilege: Pope Pius XII ordained that those who would attend mass here on any feast day of Mary would have all their sins forgiven if they asked for it.

Interesting how this Dark Mother is portrayed with African traits in the banner, but not in the relief over the spring. This shows that some associate Black Madonnas with Africans, while others do not. (More on this in the introduction.)

It's a humble, but healing spring.

It's a humble, but healing spring.

In